Sermon preached by
The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley
25th May 2003
I am not the sort of person who throws things at the television, but I very nearly did a few weeks ago when watching Simon Schama’s History of Britain.
He was talking about the impact of the French and American revolutions upon England and was speculating upon why revolution never happened here. He managed to get through a whole programme without mentioning the religious revival in the late eighteenth century, a phenomenon which was one of the things most noticed by foreign commentators at the time.
England, at that time, was a powder keg waiting for a match. Industrialisation had meant that millions of people had flocked into the industrial cities, taking up jobs in factories, shipyards and mills. They had come from rural work and were unused to city life. Workers were known as “hands” and were treated as faceless commodities to be exploited and replaced with fresh “hands” when they grew ill or died. Conditions in the factories were dangerous and accidents were frequent. The poor worked long hours with abysmal pay. Away from work, the workers were crammed into awful back-to-back houses, which were breeding grounds for disease. The death rate was very high, especially among children.
So why didn’t these starving masses rise up and revolt?
Because of the efforts of Christian reformers who legislated in Parliament to change the labour laws and also because Wesley took religion to the poor. The Church of England in the 18th century had largely failed to adapt quickly enough to the growth and shift in population. In the newly industrialised cities there were not enough churches, not enough clergy, many of whom in any case couldn’t cope with the uncouth manners and behaviour of the workers. Religion was simply failing to penetrate these areas.
It was into this void that John Wesley moved. Most of you will know the facts of his life: that he was an intelligent student at Oxford, who took Holy Orders as an Anglican priest and who then felt moved to form a little group within the church which would be more rigorous in prayer, more energetic in good works and more methodical in its way of life. Right from the beginning Wesley was not just about words or sacraments, although these were important to him, he was about doing things, visiting the sick, going into prisons, going to those who needed Christ’s word, wherever he saw the need. Wesley was a devoted member of the Anglican Church until the Bishops refused to ordain men to go out and preach the Word in America. Wesley always wished that the split could be avoided and repaired (so I hope he is in Heaven praying for efforts to heal the split between us).
You will all have some idea about the heroic efforts that Wesley made to go to the workers. He travelled thousand of miles on horseback on bumpy, dusty roads. He was stoned, abused and insulted. In one case a bull was let loose on him, but he never wavered from preaching the word and calling everyone to Christ. When the local Anglican ministers would not allow him into their churches, he preached to crowds of thousands in fields and on village greens. He even came to Bedford and preached at St Paul’s church.
Central to his preaching was the value that Jesus has for every person, whatever their social station or education. Each person has dignity and worth. Most simply defined, "works of mercy" are "doing good." John Wesley preached that Christians must do both works of piety and works of mercy in order to move on toward Christian perfection. So Christianity must be about transforming both the individual and addressing the evils of the society at large.
Wesley wrote: we must ensure
“every thing which we give, or speak, or do, whereby our neighbour may be profited; whereby another man may receive any advantage, either in his body or soul. The feeding the hungry, the clothing the naked, the entertaining or assisting the stranger, the visiting those that are sick or in prison, the comforting the afflicted, the instructing the ignorant, the reproving the wicked, the exhorting and encouraging the well-doer”.
Wesley’s was always a practical kind of faith realising that the body
must be cared for if the soul was to flourish. He set up dispensaries to
distribute medicine to the poor, and lecture on health practises. He wrote
and distributed lots of pamphlets to exhort and encourage the new converts
and founded schools to educate poor children.
John Wesley was always willing to be imaginative and look afresh at the way things were done, even if they were unconventional. As early as 1787 Wesley authorised the first woman to preach the Gospel and Methodism always has had a more progressive attitude to feminism and freedom than the established church.
Wesley’s idealism inspired many beyond the Methodist church, and was part
of a wider religious revival in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
century. Social reforms and political advances were directly linked to this
When Engels and Karl Marx complained that religion was an opiate of the people – they meant that it got in the way of bloody upheaval and revolution. But Wesley did in his way start a revolution. By insisting on the value of all men and women as well, on insisting of the value of North American Indians as well as white settlers, by insisting on that slavery was evil, Wesley help forge a revolution in the ways of understanding the duties of a compassionate society. His stress on the value of individuals encouraged the poor and the lost to have a sense of their own value. He started a revolution in the hearts of individuals which spread outwards into the country.
Last week we were privileged to have a visit from the Riding Lights Theatre company who gave us their play “Saving Grace” about the life of Wesley. There were many wonderful things about the play. But what I took away from it was an increased affection and admiration for Wesley as a person. Throughout his life he strove to live up to his potential, to allow nothing to distract him for what he saw as God’s purpose for him. Influenced by his extraordinary mother, John Wesley saw himself as God’s instrument and tried to keep that instrument dedicated to God’s purposes. He was clearly not a perfect man nor an easy one to live with, but we can learn so much from his enormous ability to be self-disciplined and focussed on God. In an age like ours, where the pursuit of pleasure and personal happiness are seen as essential, Wesley shines out as a person who was willing to subdue his own desires for the progress of the Kingdom – an inspiring example to be studied and celebrated.